Another Problem Play 

Aurora's Busy World takes a lot on faith.

The Aurora Theatre Company's tendency to bring in newer plays is a good thing. The theatrical gene pool needs regular infusions of new blood in order for its blood to keep pumping at all. In addition to older plays by Wilde, Pinter, Mae West, and John Guare, and Ellen McLaughlin's reinvention of Euripides, the last two seasons have offered recent works by Joan Ackermann, Oren Safdie, Terry Johnson, and Diana Son.

Taken as a whole it's an intriguing mix, covering everything from architecture to race relations to an imagined meeting of Freud and Dali. Taken individually, none of these plays has been entirely satisfying. And the West Coast premiere of Keith Bunin's The Busy World Is Hushed that ends the 2007-08 season doesn't break that streak.

The setup is that Hannah, an Episcopalian minister, has hired writer Brandt to ghostwrite a book about a newly unearthed gospel that may predate the ones in the Bible, one she hopes to be "the nearest we've ever come to the true words of Christ." She's also worried about her aimless adult son Thomas, who can't stick with anything and likes to lose himself in the wilderness and see if he can survive. Thomas has come home to look through the possessions of his father, who died under mysterious circumstances before Thomas was born. Brandt, whose own father is dying of a drawn-out illness, finds Thomas very attractive.

Bunin's play, which premiered in New York in 2006, is overloaded with clunky expository dialogue that's made to feel especially forced by the wooden performance of Anne Darragh as Hannah. In the opening job-interview scene, she sounds as if she's reading off the page she's holding in her hand.

A placid reserve is appropriate to clergy, and Darragh has a nice way of listening intensely to other characters, but she's so mild that it's difficult to know what we're supposed to take away from Hannah's scenes. Thomas says things about her that seem totally out of line — albeit under circumstances that make his reaction understandable — but later on Hannah seems to say he was right. There's something Bunin wants us to see in her that's not really there to be seen, either in the performance or the script.

That's all the more curious because it's the sort of play where people tell you all about themselves right off the bat. There are a lot of amusing lines (and many others that are conspicuously precious), as well as some interesting theological discussions and character anecdotes, and director Robin Stanton's handsome and well-paced production brings those moments alive. The problem is, the moments don't add up to much. The plot is contrived and poorly fleshed out. The first act closes with a showy switcheroo to get you clucking over intermission, and the portentous conclusion tries too hard for poignancy.

Eric E. Sinkkonen's lovely set evokes some kind of church reading room, with stained-glass windows depicting Bible scenes, a bleak-looking black-and-white cityscape visible through a central window, and piles of books on the floor. In fact it's described as "the library of an apartment on West 122nd Street in New York City." It feels so nice and spacious (especially with the audience seated in the round) that it seems churlish when Hannah shrugs it off it as faculty housing and complains about the stained glass.

Kurt Landisman's lighting feels natural enough not to draw attention to itself, except in the slow dimming light accentuating a soliloquy about God being love and one odd effect in which it appears to be snowing in only one of the windows.

Chad Deverman is terrific as Brandt, the point-of-view character of the piece, carrying an easygoing, smirking intelligence with just a touch of awkwardness that's terribly endearing. Things liven up considerably as soon as James Wagner enters as Thomas in bloodied clothes with porcupine quills sticking out of his sock and a yarn to tell. James Wagner nicely captures his playful, boyish charm, and the two have strong chemistry together.

It looks for a while as if homosexuality's going to be a big issue in the play, particularly with the theology flying fast and furious, but that turns out to be a red herring, which in itself is refreshing.

Characters certainly talk about being gay — about coming out and whether Jesus really would have had any problem with it — but in the end it turns out to pretty much be a non-issue for the plot and everyone involved, which seems very much as it should be in this day and age. Like in the play Octopus that recently closed at the Magic, being gay is totally normal — the problem is something else entirely. What The Busy World Is Hushed is ultimately about is as elusive as the questions of faith that Hannah's chasing.

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